Erickson gets new attorney after lawyer moves to drop him as client

Saturday, May 28, 2011 | 4:33 p.m. CDT; updated 5:35 p.m. CDT, Saturday, May 28, 2011

COLUMBIA — Attorney Kathleen Zellner has filed a motion to drop Charles Erickson as her client, as a result of the possibility that a judge may grant co-defendant Ryan Ferguson a new evidentiary hearing.

Erickson has been in prison since 2004 after he admitted that he and Ferguson murdered Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt in 2001.

Ferguson, who maintains he had nothing to do with the crime, was found guilty in 2005 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. The verdict rested heavily on testimony from Erickson, who received a reduced sentence of 25 years in exchange for his cooperation during the trial.

Zellner, who is based in Chicago, decided to take on Ferguson as a client in 2009 and has been working pro bono to free the now 26-year-old from prison.

She didn't represent Erickson until 2010, after he recanted his trial testimony and said he lied on the stand. He testified that Ferguson was with him on the night of the murder, but that his friend did not assist him in the slaying.  

If Cole County Judge Daniel Green decides to accept a habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of Ferguson by Zellner in February, a new evidentiary hearing could be granted.

Zellner made the decision to stop representing Erickson in order to avoid the possibility of a future conflict of interest, she said Friday.

It was a move Zellner and Erickson always planned to make; and though there is currently no conflict of interest, she said,

Zellner said she decided to go ahead with the plan in light of the tentative hearing on June 29, in order to avoid future problems.

“There are no hard feelings,” Zellner said. “This is what we had planned all along.”

 Zellner said it must be clear that she did not begin representing Erickson until six months after his recantation in 2010.

 John O’Connor, an attorney from Kansas City, will represent Erickson as a witness if the judge decides there should be a new evidentiary hearing. There are no specifics on whether O’Connor will continue to represent Erickson after the hearing, if there is one.

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